Brian Bilbray and Francine Busby
Denis Poroy  /  AP
Republican Brian Bilbray is facing off against Democrat Francine Busby in a high-stakes special election in California's 50th congressional district. The two are vying to replace former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who was convicted of accepting millions of dollars in bribes.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 6/6/2006 2:36:54 PM ET 2006-06-06T18:36:54

If you live in Atlanta or Denver, why should you care about a special election Tuesday in a congressional district in southern California?

Answer: because the outcome tonight in California’s 50th congressional district will be the most significant indicator we’ve yet had as to whether Republicans can keep control of the House of Representatives this November.

Put aside those generic poll questions that ask “which party would you prefer to control the House?” — those poll respondents may not even vote.

But today real live voters will decide the fates of Republican Brian Bilbray and Democrat Francine Busby.

This election is to fill the seat vacated by Duke Cunningham, who pled guilty last November to conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion, admitting that he’d taken $2.4 million in bribes.

Precursor of November?
This is a Republican district: Cunningham carried it in 2004 with 58 percent and President Bush carried it with 55 percent.

Bilbray is a former House member who represented a neighboring and less Republican district from 1995 to 2001, but was defeated in November 2000, mostly due to his vote to impeach President Clinton.

(There’s partial overlap between Bilbray’s old district and the one he’s now running in.)

The theory is if Democrat Busby can win today's election, Democrats will win a lot of other House races in Republican districts in November — giving them the net gain of 15 seats they need to control the House.

“One of the most unexpectedly competitive races in congressional history,” Bill Burton, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called the Busby-Bilbray race.

Busby “has shown that a strong ‘change’ message can make even a former member of Congress vulnerable in a safe Republican district,” Burton said.

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Busby “can more or less competently offer herself as a vehicle for protest,” said Gary Jacobson, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, and an expert on congressional elections. “She’s not particularly dynamic or charismatic, but maybe that’s not what people are looking for.”

National ripple effect
Burton made the larger national point: “If the Republicans have to spend $5 million in such a district, how much will they have to spend to help Gerlach, Pryce and Shaw?”

Burton was referring to three endangered Republican House members: Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania, Deborah Pryce of Ohio and Clay Shaw of Florida.

Referring to reports that more than 150 House Republican staffers had been dispatched to the district to help turn out the vote for Bilbray, Burton said, “They won’t be able to do that in 40 or 50 races this fall.”

Burton said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had spent $2 million to help Busby.

“You’ve got Busby attacking ‘the culture of corruption’ and attacking Bilbray as a lobbyist; Bilbray has tried to make illegal immigration the pivotal issue,” said veteran California Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum, who is not working for either candidate.

But Bilbray may not be tough enough on illegal immigration for some voters.

An independent candidate, William Griffith, is also on the ballot and has won the support of the Minutemen, a citizen-run, anti-illegal immigration group that patrols the Mexican border.

Immigration issue plays a role
“The hard-core anti-immigration people have gotten behind Griffith and the Busby campaign has taken advantage of that: they actually produced radio spot for a conservative religious radio station urging voters to vote for Griffith and they set up a phone bank urging Republicans to vote for Griffith.”

“Like a leaf out of Karl Rove’s playbook,” said Jacobson.

“Bilbray is pro-choice and he’s not anti-gay. He has a reputation as a social moderate," said Jacobson. “He’s never been a favorite of social conservatives, who dominate the Republican politics in California.”

Referring to social conservative voters, Hoffenblum said, “They don’t like Bilbray. They couldn’t care what position he has on immigration. They think he’s a ‘baby killer’ and that type of stuff. They just don’t like him. They just think he’s too moderate on too many issues.”

Bill Frist, Henry Hyde, Randy "Duke" Cunningham
AP
Former California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
Another liability for Bilbray: “He has the word ‘lobbyist’ attached to his resume,” said Jacobson. “But he has never been accused of being personally corrupt in any way.”

In the primary election on April 11, Busby got 44 percent. But Bilbray, facing a crowded field of Republican rivals, garnered only 15 percent, barely beating a more conservative candidate Eric Roach.

“If Busby today actually gets a majority of the votes cast, over 50 percent, then I think it is going to be a solid message, a precursor for November, that we have a sizable group of voters who almost always in the past voted Republican and are now looking to ‘throw the bums out,’” said Hoffenblum.

Splitting the vote?
But he added, “If Busby wins with 45 percent plurality and Griffith ends up with eight or nine percent of the vote, that mutes that message. It will mean that the right wing just split the vote.”

The winner of the special election will serve out Cunningham’s term.

Making the evening’s outcome even more complicated is the closed primary on each side to choose nominees for the Nov. 7 election.

In that primary, Bilbray faces a well-funded conservative, Bill Hauf, who “is spending some serious money to defeat Bilbray,” said Hoffenblum.

Busby may have made a costly error in the final days of the race. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, last week Busby, speaking before a largely Latino crowd in the district, responded to a question from a man who said in Spanish, “I want to help, but I don't have papers.”

Busby replied: “Everybody can help, yeah, absolutely, you can all help. You don't need papers for voting, you don't need to be a registered voter to help.”

Bilbray charged that Busby was encouraging illegal immigrants to vote, a charge she denied.

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